MintStyle

MintStyle With Rachel Weingarten: Mad Men Business Style

They say that absence makes the heart grow fonder. After a 17-month-long hiatus, loyal Mad Men fans will be even more head over heels for Don Draper and company when the series returns on March 25th.

Clever dialogue, spectacular costumes and steamy assignations aside, why is a show set five decades ago quite so popular in our own era? “Nostalgia,” says Scott Stoddart, Dean of the School of Liberal Arts at the Fashion Institute of Technology and author of Analyzing Mad Men: Critical Essays on the Television Series (McFarland & Company).

“Mad Men captures nostalgia on different levels and in very different ways for people who lived through the ‘60s and for students and Gen X & Gen Y.” Stoddart continues, “For older people, it recalls a time when there were manners and a civilized way of life. For a younger generation it’s nostalgia for a way of life that they’ve never known- sexy and naughty in a way that their life can never be.”

On the other hand, Nicolaus Mills, a professor of American Studies at Sarah Lawrence College, believes that, “The Appeal of Mad Men is that it makes us feel so much better about our own follies and hijinks. What the Mad Men thought was corrupt strikes us as tepid half a century later.”

So, it would seem that there are stylistic and generational influences apparent to those who lived through it, and those who view the ‘60s through the lens of our own culture and more.

Business Style: Then and Now

In early days of advertising, men wore suits and fedoras, ran most businesses and imbibed in too many cocktails under the guise of wheeling and dealing. Women were mostly decorative and usually relegated to taking notes while working hard to be taken seriously.

Unlike the myriad office romances occurring on Mad Men, Tina Tessina, PhD, (aka “Dr. Romance”) says, “During 50′s and 60′s, men had all the power and office dating was perilous for both genders. There was no such thing as sexual harassment, and even women who were raped or abused had trouble finding support against a powerful man. It was often deemed the woman’s fault.”

Advertising pioneer Jane Maas’s memoir, Mad Women: The Other Side of Life on Madison Avenue in the ’60s and Beyond (Thomas Dunne Books), has its share of sex (office affairs were all too common), sexism (women were routinely fired for becoming pregnant) and cigarettes (too many to count). For the most part though, Maas offers a somewhat rose-tinted version of life as a woman working in a male dominated industry.

Back to the Future

How far has the business world progressed since the ‘60s? While much has changed, Carol Roth, a business strategist and bestselling author, believes that there are definitely business lessons worth learning from days gone by and some best left behind.

Roth says, “The more technology allows us to take short cuts in business, the more effective going back to past practices, such as personalized contact, becomes.  As emails replace phone calls, phone calls become more effective.” In other words, the notion of high tech/high touch is truer than ever, which means spending time cultivating personal contacts and connecting and meeting in person when possible. Score one for the ‘60s style of doing business.

Be Firm/Don’t Cocoon

So we’ve established that there are some business elements that can prove equally effective in our own time, but what should remain unequivocally in the past?

Roth is emphatic that the “ladies handshake” needs to be left in the past. She believes that whether a man is shaking your hand, or you are shaking hands with another woman, a confident palm-against-palm shake should be the signature of the modern businesswoman.

And working women, while you’re at it, don’t cocoon. While the business environment has changed drastically in many ways since advertising executive Maas was mistaken for the stenographer, in many ways it remains an uneven playing field. As Roth puts it, “There is still the old glass ceiling in many respects in the new digital age, with very few women in the highest ranks of business, on the boards of directors in public companies and in key leadership positions.”

One reason that Roth believes this to be true is due to the “business cocoon based on gender.”  She cites the concept of women’s groups as potentially damaging for a career, as it seems to single out women as a “special needs group.”  So much like Peggy Olson, “Don’t be afraid to grab your seat at the men’s table, even if you are the only woman.”

Dress to Impress

So far, we’ve learned it’s wise to embrace some business lessons from the past, but what about fashion? How does one go about incorporating vintage elements into one’s modern every day style without looking or feeling frumpy?

Stylist Natasha Estrada of Pinup Girl Clothing, is a fan of classic, vintage-inspired investment pieces along the lines of Laura Byrnes’ Black Label, which features clean lines and exceptional tailoring for a look that’s both work and cocktail party appropriate.

In the past, attention to detail was paramount for both women and men. According to Roth, “From the way a business person dressed (completely polished), to the way they approached their business day, each element was done with care and style.” While it’s no longer de rigueur to wear a tie or fedora to a meeting, taking pride in what you do will help you to stand out from the crowd.

Estrada believes the key element of vintage clothing missing in a much of today’s modern fashion is fabulous tailoring and distinguished silhouettes. Do  you want to add some retro style to your work mix? Estrada recommends a high-waisted trouser, pencil skirt, or ’40s inspired jacket to give your everyday work suit a cutting vintage edge. A well-structured, crisp collared shirt, such as the “Sean top” from Laura Byrnes, has a deep v neck with immaculate seaming, giving a feminine twist to a masculine classic.

Celebrating in Style

While the manners and methods of doing business haven’t necessarily translated well from the past, the fashion and design elements remain popular. If you’re not yet ready to rock a retro look, consider easing in by wearing retro or vintage-inspired clothing to your next event. Genevieve Rajewski, who lives near Boston, held a Mad Men inspired holiday cocktail party in part to give her friends a reason to dress up. “When people dress up it’s a good excuse to talk and get to know each other, there’s lots of joking, and so many excuses to talk.” So, on some levels, a shared sense of fashion can inspire conversation and networking.

Jen A. Miller, author of The Jersey Shore Atlantic City to Cape May (Countryman Press), favors vintage fashion for special occasions and book signings. Her passion for vintage clothing started in college and was inspired by her quest for exclusivity and the notion that “no one else will have this dress.” And unlike the pricey vintage frocks worn by celebrities, vintage isn’t synonymous with pricey. Some of Miller’s greatest pre-worn fashion coups cost her less than $25.00.

Inspiration In Lieu of Literal Interpretation

But what if you aren’t brave enough for vintage? Estrada recommends vintage-inspired attire, which allows you to have the best of both worlds: great vintage design in modern fabrics, which make wearing and incorporating the elements of retro fashion more practical. Classic styles work well on both men and women and the better cuts, quality of fabric and attention to detail tend to be more flattering (if generally suited for smaller frames).

Retro Fashion Tips/Resources:

  • Rajewski favorite vintage resource: Vintage Revenge
  • Miller’s two favorite vintage resources are Couture Allure and Dandelion Vintage
  • My own book, Hello Gorgeous! Beauty Products in America ’40s-‘60s which features hundreds of original cosmetic advertisements will be reissued later this year. You can also see the original ads that inspired a Basket of Kisses.

Rachel Weingarten is a style expert, marketing strategist & personal branding consultant for CEOs, politicians and celebrities and the creator of MintStyle. She is the award-winning author of Career and Corporate Cool and Hello Gorgeous! Beauty Products in America ‘40s-‘60s. Rachel writes for top media outlets including CNN, Fortune, Forbes Life, MSN, USA Today, Yahoo Finance and many others. She is a regularly featured expert on TV shows including Good Morning America and The Today Show. Visit her online at http://racheletc.com or on Twitter @rachelcw